Drivers Beware! Rabbinic Grave-hopping Ahead

Bratslav Hasidim pursuing their mysterious rabbi on nighttime visits to graves have been recklessly speeding and running red lights.

Nighttime drivers in the north in recent weeks have encountered dozens of cars traveling at high speeds in total disregard of traffic lights and highway signs. In three instances, the cars have either hit one another or were damaged going off the side of the road, witnesses said.

berland - Victor Mazuz, Kikar Hashabbat - February 15 2011
Victor Mazuz

It now appears this was all organized by the Shuvu Banim Bratslav Hasidic community in pursuit of the movement's mysterious Rabbi Eliezer Berland, who has been making a series of nighttime visits to the graves of righteous men (tzadikim ) in the north. The rabbi has encouraged his followers to chase after him.

The activities peaked last week on the night between Thursday and Friday, when the rabbi was pursued by dozens of cars as well as three buses - a crowd of 800 to 1,000 people in total. Several participants told Haaretz with pride about their hot pursuit of the rabbi, through red lights and stop signs, at speeds reaching 140 kilometers per hour on roads where the speed limit is 80.

The father of one yeshiva student said his son was involved in an accident while pursuing the rabbi and was injured. The father called for the practice to be stopped before someone is killed.

Local police said they are unaware of the practice, which has not resulted in any serious injuries so far.

On Saturday night, Berland announced via an associate, Betar Ilit Mayor Meir Rubinstein, that he has stopped the nighttime visits to the graves. But the decision apparently had no connection to the light injuries sustained in accidents in pursuit of the rabbi. Instead, it was attributed to the fact that the practice was disrupting students' study routines.

But some students told Haaretz that they are hoping for a change of heart on the rabbi's part.

The students said the chase was actually meant to contribute to calm and stability in the Shuvu Banim community, which has experienced a lot of turmoil recently. The peak of the instability came about two months ago, when the 73-year-old rabbi instigated a sort of coup in his community, which is affiliated with the Bratslav Hasidim but as a practical matter is independent.

berland - Kikar Hashabbat - February 15 2011
Kikar Hashabbat

The rabbi announced the ouster of his son Nachman and his grandson Natan, who had been in charge of all aspects of the community, as well as of contacts between the rabbi and the outside world. He also appointed new management for the community's nonprofit organizations and institutions.

Berland said he had been "imprisoned" by his associates for years and had now been set free. Subsequently, details emerged of their control over the rabbi's schedule and the aggressive security they maintained around him, as well as of the role of his wife.

But since then, most of the deposed members of the community's leadership have been returned to their positions, and the community is now attempting to return to normal.

Meanwhile, the rabbi and his wife left their home in Jerusalem, apparently temporarily, for an apartment in Tiberias, from which Berland has been setting out to visit the graves. The rabbi has a longstanding practice of visiting graves of tzadikim, and a whole mythology has sprung up over his alleged secret visits to graves in Bethlehem, Hebron and Nablus. Recently, he apparently decided to take advantage of his new-found freedom to do the same in the north.